In the early 1930’s, forest fires plagued the western landscape. They were big and they were costly. In 1931, eight firefighters lost their lives. In 1933, fires felled 29 fire fighters. To ensure there was adequate visual coverage of all forest areas for fire detection purposes and to better locate fires, foresters turned to a new (and for the time) high tech tool: the Osborne Recording Transit. The camera was invented by USFS forester William B. Osborne, Jr., who worked on the Mt. Hood National Forest from 1909-1953. The instrument was primarily a camera. It produced a 120-degree panoramic image that could be precisely aligned with the fire lookout’s view of a fire. Three photographs provided a complete 360-degree view. Dispatchers could accurately match the location of a fire with a photo and describe the landscape where the fire was burning. Firefighters could be more prepared for the challenges they faced.
To produce the 120-degree view, the Osborne camera had a lens that rotated during each exposure. The cameras had to be precisely oriented at each location so that the directional ticks exposed onto the film would match the actual directions. Sometimes the North Star was used to orient the camera for the next day’s shooting. Only ten or fewer of these cameras were ever made. They weighed about 75 pounds and were manufactured by Leupold and Stevens (now Leupold) out of Portland, Oregon. Despite their weight and general awkwardness, Osborne panoramas were shot at virtually every lookout in Oregon and Washington, a total of 813 lookout sites. Today, more than 3,000 Osborne panorama contact prints are housed at the National Archives in Seattle, Wash.